Nearly every biography of Jeff Rosenstock refers to him as a Long Island punk icon. A lyric from his song “Pash Rash” nods to this: “I’ve been doing this for half my years.”
For well over a decade, the 35-year-old has dripped sweat at live shows fronting ska and punk bands with names like the Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry!, not counting his numerous side projects. Onstage, you might see him in jean shorts, shouting in front of a 666-adorned rainbow flag before scaling the amplifiers to blare out a saxophone solo. He’s produced more than a handful of records. He’s podcasted about the TV show Lost with his friend, fellow punk Chris Farren. In certain circles, he’s nothing short of a legend.
When I meet him at a neighborhood bar in Brooklyn one afternoon, though, he’s just guy in a hoodie. Draft kombucha in hand, Rosenstock is talking about a pair of upcoming shows he’s set to play in support of his new album, POST-, around the corner at the cherished concert venue Warsaw. Well, trying to talk about them, anyway.
“Adding a second show, our agent had to convince me. I was like, I don’t know, man. Maybe we should just cut our losses and be stoked we sold it out,” he says about the 1,000-capacity venue beloved for its pierogies — the same venue that hosted both his wedding and final Bomb the Music Industry! shows. “He’s like, ‘No, man. It’ll be good.’ I usually undersell myself, and my friends who I work with have to attempt to convince me, ‘No, things are going well, it’s alright, buddy, it’s OK.'”
Rosenstock has reason to celebrate this particular sellout. His hooky, explosive 2016 album, WORRY., hit with an ironic resonance after the fateful presidential election just three weeks after its release, leading to end-of-year accolades and the biggest critical success of his career. It got love on music publications’ best of 2016 roundups and even landed at the top of USA Today‘s list. Pitchfork Festival subsequently booked him, where he saw fit to announce onstage how much his band had been paid for the gig.
Rosenstock’s manic gospel — cathartic indie-punk injected with the gleeful abandon of basement hardcore — spread wide like a pair of outstretched arms. On New Year’s Day this year, he capitalized on that, surprise-releasing POST- via Polyvinyl. “Something nice at the beginning of the year,” he said. “Or, I don’t know, for people who don’t like me, something terrible at the beginning of the year to get upset about.”
These undercutting tendencies in interviews do not extend to his music. The guy who says he undersells himself is the same one who spring-loads the back half of one album with a blistering medley of different styles, whose new album leads off with a seven-minute, continent-spanning diary entry called “USA” and ends with the 11-minute anti-bullying manifesto “Let Them Win.”
This same songwriter captured the particular brand of demoralized betrayal Americans have lived with since November 2016 on the brilliant, self-assured POST-, and song titles like “Powerlessness,” “All This Useless Energy,” and “Beating My Head Against a Wall” hit close to home, literally, for him and his listeners. “I was thinking about the stages of grief, almost,” Rosenstock said.
“The thing happens, then you take in that the thing happens, and then it kinda is a slow-building freakout until you just kinda lose it,” he continued, “and then you just kinda reflect and like, oh shit, I lost it, OK, how do I pick up the pieces from here?”
There’s denial on “USA,” where Rosenstock reckons with the day nearly 63 million Americans opted in to this nation’s darkest timeline. Recalling the gas station clerks and SUV-driving dads he’s encountered, he asks, “Was it you?” Anger splatters with every vocal shriek on the brutal ballad “TV Stars,” and bargaining arrives via the escapist anthem “Melba.” On “9/10,” meanwhile, depression sets in:
Nine times out of 10, I’ll be stoned on the subway
Reading backlit directives of what I should do
Dodging eye contact with anyone who looks my way
Nine times out of 10, I’ll be thinking of you
“So many people I know and people I love [are] just stressed out by everything, and I just wanted to write a song like, yeah, me too, bud, and it’s OK,” Rosenstock said. “That one was just kinda like, it’s OK to feel shitty. Everybody tells somebody that, ‘Yeah, I’m busy tonight’ when you’re not busy.”
POST- can be exuberant, too. Amid its seemingly endless turmoil is the fun shout-along line “Meet me at the Polish bar, I’ll be the one looking at my phone” (surprisingly not Warsaw, but nearby Irene’s Pub) and the staccato bursts of “Beating My Head Against a Wall” that cleverly resemble that very activity. You can hear why it took Rosenstock and his band only a week to record it in California, albeit after what he calls “extensive” demoing.
But its most lasting moments are contemplative, informed by the quiet locale where it first took shape. Last winter, he trekked up to a snowy Catskills trailer his friends own and tinkered with what he’d recorded up to that point. “Maybe I’ll just go up in the mountains and fucking play a synth for a week,” he said of the idea.
Song fragments that came to him while driving around on tour, quick guitar and vocal ideas captured on his phone during soundchecks — he brought all of it. He also had a newly purchased Roland Juno synthesizer, guitars, a computer, and other gear and even deleted social media and web-browsing apps from his phone.
“I could make noise as late as I want,” he said. The peaceful middle section that deflates the bombast of “USA” comes from a quieter moment, and he adds that the keyboard part heard on the album is the one he captured “just staring out in the middle of the night in the snow and thinking about stuff.” You can see this solitude on the POST- cover, too, in the photo captured by Rosenstock’s friend Hiro Tanaka and the design by Rosenstock himself. In it, a lonely cleaner vacuums a vestibule at a Reno concert venue at 2 a.m.
“That one looked and felt the best,” Rosenstock said. “I was stoked when I got that one [from Hiro].” As the conversation winds down, he directs me to check out his website for more candid moments from Tanaka.
Before we part ways, Rosenstock agrees to pose for a quick photo because the lighting looks good in the back of the bar. He stands up and assumes a half-smile in front of his stool; then I suggest he should just do whatever feels natural.
Sitting back down, he looks away. “Nothing feels natural,” he says. I’m not so sure. I think the photo turned out just fine.